Emma Straub, co-founder, Books Are Magic

How a Brooklyn novelist and her husband launched a thriving indie bookstore

Says Straub: "I think books are absolutely as important as food" (Photo courtesy of the author)

When the beloved indie bookstore BookCourt in Cobble Hill announced its closing in December 2016, the neighborhood (and beyond) was crushed. Famous writers and neighbors filled social media with mourning. The very same day, however, came a ray of hope: bestselling novelist Emma Straub, who lives nearby, wrote on her blog: “A neighborhood without an independent bookstore is a body without a heart. And so we’re building a new heart.”

It was an inspiring pledge, but neither she nor her husband, graphic designer Michael Fusco-Straub, really knew what they were doing at first. So they did their homework, helped along by Brooklyn bookstore owners who opened their ledgers and showed the way. On May 1, 2017, Straub and her husband opened their store, Books Are Magic, which has fully lived up to their promise.

What they lacked in business experience, Straub explains in our podcast, she and her husband made up for in having a strong sense of how customers should feel about the store: “a place where you actually want to spend time.” Situated on Smith Street not far from the family’s home, the store is cozy and quirky, with high ceilings, brick walls, comfy nooks, and a book-obsessed staff. “The space is what makes it special,” says Straub. “It’s weird. It’s got character, which is what you want in a bookstore.”

emma straub

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CNN predicted the store would become Brooklyn’s newest tourist attraction, thanks to “indie cred, literary roots and a fan base that already includes Brooklyn’s over-supply of resident writers.” Indeed, Books Are Magic quickly filled the gap left by BookCourt, while establishing an identity of its own as a neighborhood hub. “We thought, ‘A bookstore is an anchor, a bookstore is a place that people can use on a daily basis.’ That is why we opened it in the first place,” says Straub. We couldn’t deal with the fact that of not having a place that we could bring our children on a rainy Sunday morning in February.”

The Straub household is joyously bookish. While the novelist says she tries to curb her two small children’s toy-buying habits, “For me, there is no limit on books. I think books are food. I think books are absolutely as important as food,” she said. 

Straub and her husband knew going in that opening a bookstore is not something you do to get rich. “The margins are hilariously slim for bookstores. A profitable bookstore makes about 5% to 8% profit,” she said. But they did everything they could to insure success, notably by establishing a large and engaged customer base. The store has author appearances and other events almost every night, 28,000 followers on Instagram, and a mural on its outside wall that provides an irresistible photo-op.

As a result, the store’s reputation extends far beyond the neighborhood. “Our people are our people, and they are coming, but we also have people who are coming who are tourists, who are coming because they follow us on Instagram and they watched us build the space and they see pictures of our booksellers doing goofy dances and they’ve bought our staff picks through our website.” Social media, Straub said, “has really helped us.” 

Now that the store is up and running, with a staff of about a dozen, Straub says she has been able to spend some time at what she calls her “day job,” producing so far about 150 pages of her next book, the follow-up to her 2016 bestseller, Modern Lovers. This time her fans will have an unusual opportunity: to buy a book directly from the author.–By Kora Feder